Academic failure: four more ways to deal with it

In his second blog, John Tregoning offers some more advice on coping with scholarly stress

October 13, 2015

Welcome to my second Times Higher Education careers blog (here’s blog number 1). I had intended to focus on some of the many core skills needed in an academic career: selling your science, the importance of brand and how to collaborate. But I got derailed.

It turns out you can come up with all the carefully phrased advice, witty but apposite anecdotes and strategies for coping with failure. You can think outside the box and look on the bright side, but occasionally the wheels come off.

Twenty-four hours ago, I was sitting at my desk working on the third draft of a grant proposal that I have been tortuously pulling together for many months when I had an unshakeable feeling that “this is unfundable garbage; what am I doing here, my career is in tatters”. I slowly sank into despair.*

That I had recently written upbeat pieces about failure and building resilience, combined with my inability to listen to my own advice, only added to my frustration.

You may wonder why I am sharing this in a blog purportedly about academic career development. Mainly, it is to (re)emphasise a key point: we all struggle with the ups and downs of academic life, and anyone who says they don’t is lying, not trying hard enough...or emeritus.

It is also to emphasise that every glowing opportunity is accompanied by a kick in the bum. Failure is rife and disappointment common.

I also wanted to share what worked for me in order to compress my time in the doldrums and accelerate a return to productivity. The route back up involved support, distraction and time.

There are times when you need to draw on your network of friends, family and colleagues to hold your hand (literally and figuratively), to send you friendly emojis and reassure you that your idea is OK (or at least has salvageable parts). But make sure you are available to return the favour when the positions are reversed.

Step outside the moment
For me, exercise resets the balance. For you it might be music, drawing, playing Grand Theft Auto or cooking. I said this in my last blog but will stress it again, if only for my own benefit: if one aspect of the job gets too much, do something else. Defrost a -80°C freezer, order lab consumables or clean the incubators. Find your stress relief valve and make sure it is accessible at work.

In an attempt to manage myself better, I have now got running kit in a drawer in my office, to be deployed in emergency.

The simplest factor is time: time away from the desk, time to reflect on the good bits and time to refocus.

Lessons learned
The moment passes, there will be bits you can salvage and, if not, you have learned what doesn’t work.

My problem is fear of failure, but you can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket, and you can’t get a grant unless you submit a proposal. I’d like to hope that having reflected on the stresses of failing (again) I won’t get into the same state (again). However, I am sure I will – but maybe next time I will be self-aware enough to break out the running shoes earlier.

* Note to my funders and employers: this was unfounded. My grant proposal is amazing. In fact you should fund it without even reading it.

John Tregoning is senior lecturer in the mucosal infection and immunity section of virology at Imperial College London. He runs a blog on academic life.

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